Blazers Stay Hot, Top Rockets Once more
Story by: Jason Friedman
HOUSTON - LaMarcus Aldridge still can't be stopped. And as a result, the Rockets are still searching for their first win of the 2014 playoffs.
Portland's scorching hot power forward topped the 40-point plateau for the second consecutive contest, lifting his club to a 112-105 Game 2 win, allowing the Trail Blazers to lay claim to a 2-0 series lead despite the best efforts of Dwight Howard, who delivered 32 points and 14 rebounds in a losing effort.
Wednesday's primetime affair began in spectacular fashion, with Howard and Aldridge playing as if they were still steaming mad over the fact that David Robinson stole Hakeem Olajuwon’s MVP trophy back in 1995. How else to explain the amount of bamboozling both players heaped upon their helpless opponents during the first two periods of play? The two All-Stars engaged upon an epic showdown for the ages, laying waste to anything and everything in their path while posting mind bogglingly prodigious numbers.
Their combined damage at the end of a breathless and wildly entertaining first half: 48 points, 11 rebounds and 20-of-29 (.690) shooting from the floor. This was Bird versus Dominique, Wilt versus Russell or any other titanic clash that so captured the imagination you didn’t dare look away for even a second, such was the fear involved that something truly magical might be missed.
Howard set the tone right from the outset, beginning the first quarter by scoring on five consecutive possessions that largely looked exactly the same: Post-up, overpower, dunk. Wash, rinse, repeat. Every time Houston’s big man touched the ball, the crowd rose in unison, as did their voices which reached a crescendo with every monster slam.
No, Howard didn’t toss a perfect game in the first half, but he sure as heck hurled 100 mile per hour heat with every single pitch – on both ends of the floor. In fact, he monopolized the paint defensively to such an extent that on multiple occasions the overmatched Robin Lopez corralled an offensive rebound without contemplating a put-back attempt for even a millisecond. By the time the first quarter came to a close, Howard had 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting and Houston owned a 31-23 edge. This was dominance in its rawest, purest form.
Aldridge, meanwhile, preferred and explored a more subtle art form that was nonetheless just as lethal and effective. With his bevy of low-post moves and midrange maneuvers, Aldridge coolly kept the Blazers in the game while holding on for dear life in the eye of the Howard hurricane. And when the gale force winds from the Rockets’ beastly big man finally tapered off, it was Aldridge’s unshakable rhythm that allowed Portland to survive the storm and head to halftime all square at 53.
The third quarter began with Aldridge supplying more of the same, sinking jumpers of all kinds from all over the floor as Houston’s defense looked increasingly discombobulated, even losing track of the Blazers’ flamethrower on one particularly painful possession. Portland’s lead ballooned to nine as the nervous energy in the building increased with every flawless swish summoned forth from the fingertips of Aldridge.
But Houston finally received a sorely needed reprieve when Lopez was forced to the pine prior to the midway point of the period. Shortly after that moment, coincidence or no, the Rockets’ defense finally began to show signs of life as well. Sparked by a sudden spate of stops, Houston’s transition game kicked into gear, allowing the club to rattle off nine points in rapid succession to knot things up once again.
But still Aldridge kept coming, relentlessly riddling the Rockets with an endless array of long-range shots that splashed through the nets one after the other. When Howard picked up his fourth foul, the wind was summarily removed from the Rockets’ sails. And all the while, Aldridge’s assault continued as he posted his most prolific quarter yet, tallying 16 points in the period while heading to the final frame with 39 overall. Astoundingly, not only did Aldridge reach that point shooting 16-of-22 from the field, but he also owned an unfathomable 13-of-15 mark from midrange as well. The end result of his heroics: Portland took an 83-77 lead into the fourth quarter.
And although Aldridge reverted to mere mortal form in the final frame, scoring just four points on his way to finishing with an astounding total of 43, Houston never could get the stops it needed to stage a successful comeback and, as a result, never could find its way out of the hole its defensive issues had created. Portland matched the Rockets point for point down the stretch, allowing the Trail Blazers to hold on for a stunning 112-105 victory, in the process grabbing a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series which resumes Friday night in the Pacific Northwest.
"LaMarcus Aldridge is just playing at another level right now," said Chandler Parsons after the game, "He’s hitting some ridiculous shots. There aint no one in the world who can guard him one-on-one right now ... He lives and dies by contested, fade away, step-back 17-to-19-footers, and he’s living right now and he’s hitting all of them. You can’t even really knock Terrence, or Omer or Dwight’s defense because they’re playing him tough and contesting everything. There’s nothing much left to do besides just straight up double-teaming him to get the ball out of his hands and make their other guys beat us.
"We’re at a crossroads. We can go to their place and beat them on their home-court just like they did us. It seems like that’s the only option for us right now."
HOUSTON HEAD COACH KEVIN MCHALE
(On defense against LaMarcus Aldridge): “We took him out of the post for the most part. It was pick and pop. We tried doing some different things. We tried running at him a couple of times. He just shot it a couple of times in the middle of us running at him. We never really got enough stops in a row to get going. We ended up shooting forty-seven percent. The only time we were able to get some flow was when we got some stops and were able to push it. Dwight (Howard) had a great start and really got us off to a great start. We weren't able to sustain any kind of offensive push.”
(On how to get James Harden going): “We got to move the ball. We've got to attack. We cant hold it. We've got to set better picks. We've gotta have more flow and more side to side. We've had sixteen assists in the last two games. We really haven't moved the ball really well. We haven't shot too well either. James will get it going when we get it going. If we get up and down that's when he's at his best. We've got to get up and down.”
(On LaMarcus Aldridge's play): “He made some tough shots. So far, he's had a hell of a series. Needless to say. We had some stops. They got a few offensive rebounds, especially late and he got a big offensive rebound. It seems we get a pretty good shot or a good look and not make them. Of course, they made a couple of tough three's over the top on us late in the shot clock. Right now, we are not in a great rhythm and we had better get there but as I told the guys, 'it's the first team to four, not the first team to two.' Since we tried to change it up tonight, that first game he got in the paint and wore us out. Tonight, he was picking and popping and moving and we were having a hard time running people at him because he was on the perimeter most of the time. We were trying to get the ball out of his hands as much as we could but a lot of the stuff he did was pick and pop.”
(On what went wrong): “We just couldn't get stops. LaMarcus Aldridge killed us once again. Two games, ninety-plus points. It is tough for us to get out in transition and play how we play if we can't get stops.”
(On if he has ever seen anybody in his playoff experience play like LaMarcus Aldridge): “It's tough, no. No, he's doing it a high level too . He's making tough shots, he's getting to the foul line. He's offensive rebounding. He's doing the whole package and it's tough for us. We gotta figure something out real soon. In game three, it is either we win or it's over.”
(On what he has to do to get himself going offensively): “I'm not worried about my offense, I'm worried about our defense, our defense as a team. When we get stops and get out in transition everybody feels good about themselves and that's when the assists flow in and things start going well. Like I said, if we can't get stops it makes it more difficult. They are a very good team.”
(On guarding LaMarcus Aldridge): “We just have to continue to try to play good defense and just play with a hand up. He really had it going the last two games and was making some pretty unbelievable shots so you know it was good defense. We just have to continue to box out and get rebounds on defensive end when they do miss.”
(On how frustrating is it for the Rockets when playing good defense but Aldridge is still scoring): “It's basketball. It happens when you are guarding great players. So, you just want to continue to play the best D that you can and stick to the game plan.”
(On when the Rockets were playing their own style of basketball): “We definitely made a run that was definitely Rockets basketball. We just couldn't get stops later on after that. It slowed us down. We like playing fast.”
(on if all the post-ups perhaps took the team out of its rhythm): "You can’t knock what we were doing. Any team in the world would have kept feeding the guy after the first quarter he had. I’ve never seen a player dominate like that for the stretch he did opening the game. It’s not like we should have went away from it because it was working. But it definitely slows the game down for us – that’s the big reason why we have low assists because he’s just going to work and we’re not really moving the ball, we’re not cutting, and we’re not getting enough stops to get out in transition and do what we do best. So maybe it affects other guys’ game, but it’s hard to make that an excuse when he’s playing that well and dominating like he did down low."
(On the loss): “We're in an 0-2 hole. We've got to fight out of it. We can't hang our heads. We're at a crossroads. We can go to their place and beat them on their home court just like they did to us and it seems like that's the only option for us right now. The series is the first one to win four games, not two games. So, we've got to learn from this and watch a lot of film tomorrow and figure out what we can do differently to stop them because it's not working right now.”
(On what went wrong): “LaMarcus Aldridge is playing at another level right now. He is hitting some ridiculous shots. We are giving up too many rebounds. We are not getting enough stops and we are not being able to get out in transition and run and finish on the break. We had like sixteen assists tonight and that's not our game. We've got to have over twenty-five assists. To do that we have to get stops and we've got to get out in transition. When we did that tonight and made that run in the third quarter and tied it up but we've got to continue to do that. When Dwight (Howard) is hot we've got to keep getting him the ball. We've just got to go with what works and really focus on the defensive end because these last two games have been awful defensively.”
(On the loss): “It's just pretty much the same thing as game one, I'd say. We didn't really get stops and we had a lot of bone-headed plays, me included and I think LaMarcus Aldridge is playing unstoppable right now and then on the offensive end, our assist numbers have been really low. The ball is not moving the way that it was in the past. We're not getting anything as easy so I've got to go back and look at the film.”
(On the Rockets playing out of character): “We are trying to play the right way. We are trying to play together but right now, they (Portland) have done a great job of making it tough for us. Nothing has been easy for us. We haven't really gotten anything wide open or anything in transition like we normally do. I think it starts with us having to get some stops and rebounds and that's one thing we haven't done.”
(On problems defending LaMarcus Aldridge): “He hit a lot of tough shots tonight. I don't think we took away too many of his easy shots but he hit a lot of tough ones and we have to do a better job of that and we just have to come to play and play harder as a team.”
(On what he and James Harden need to do to play better): “We've done a lot this season. We've played against Portland in the regular season and we were successful. We just got to play basketball. We can't look back. We have to stay positive. They (Portland) won two games but it's the first to four and we can't let our heads down. We dug a hole but we can always get out of it.”
(On the key to the Rockets turning things around): “We just got to get stops and when we get stops we can get out and run. We didn't get a lot of stops tonight.”
(On making a lot of shots early in the game offensively): “It wasn't our game plan. I just came down and got good position and just tried to finish. It wasn't a game plan.”
(After game one, did he have any idea he could repeat his performance): “I came into the game just trying to feel it out and see what they were going to try and do because everybody had made so much chaos over how they were going to guard me and things like that. I just went into the game just trying to feel it out and ended up finding my rhythm. I thought coach did a really great job of moving me around. They were trying to double me a little, so I thought coach moving me around the floor was great. I made tough shots and I thought they played great (defense). I don’t think too much was easy tonight. I just got in that rhythm and started making shots, but they definitely changed it up on me. It’s an honor (to be mentioned with the greats of the game). Those are big time guys and big time names, hall0of-famers, so to even be in the same breath with those guys is an honor for me.”
(On what it takes to have a performance such as this one): “I keep saying, God blessed me with some incredible skills. Last game, I was going inside and this game, it was all outside. That’s why I go home every summer and work on getting better. I always try to come back with something new every year and now I have that balance to play inside and out.
(On having ever been in a zone like this in his career): “I have. I think it was at the All-Star break. The game before, I think I had forty and then I came back and think I had forty. I think I was the first guy to do it since Clyde (Drexler). That was similar, but definitely not at this stage, in this moment. This is definitely the best I’ve felt going into a game. This team in general just believes in me so much and they ride the wave so well. When I’m going one through fifteen, they are all cheering and telling me to shoot it. If I pass up a shot, they’re all mad a at me and I think having fifteen guys having your back like that is great.”
(On winning the first two games in Houston): “I think we had a very nice team effort. I really applaud that we did a great job of having each other's backs and will enjoy this one tonight. We have to respect what the other team is doing and stay focused and keep our heads down.”
(On LaMarcus Aldridge's play): “He's our leader. He's the one we rally around. When he's hitting shots that's good for us but even when he's not, we have other guys stepping up and a lot of guys stepped up big tonight. One of the things our coaches stress is being more consistent. We were a little more consistent tonight then the previous game. LaMarcus has really taken it to hear on both ends of the floor.”
(On his thoughts about LaMarcus Aldridge’s play): “What can they do to stop him. He was hitting tough fade-aways, getting into the lane, getting guys into the air and drawing fouls. He was great once again. Just like game one. He really carried our team. When I couldn’t get it going and I couldn’t hit shots, he just carried us. He played like an MVP again. I thought we had a great effort collectively in the second half as far as guys knocking down shots when it came they’re way. Guys coming in off the bench, coming in and playing physical defense and defensively, we did a great job and we did whatever we needed to do to win the game.
(On how it feels to leave Houston up 2-0 in the series): “I don’t think we thought about going 2-0. We were just focused on Game 1 and we didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves. Everybody in our locker room knew we were capable of winning games on the road. Once we stole game one. We weren’t the only tram to do that, but we kept telling ourselves we needed to get greedy and don’t be satisfied with one win because a lot of teams that came out and did the same thing we did (in game one) some into game two and got blew out and couldn’t do it two times. We talked about how Washington was able to do it by bringing energy in game two and they competed the same. I thought our team did that same thing. We knew they would come out and play really hard, shoot the ball well and the crowd would be into it and we had to stay the course and believe in our system ad stay together and we did that and we were able to steal another one.”
TRAIL BLAZERS HEAD COACH TERRY STOTTS
(On the game): “Let me just say, getting a second win here was quite an accomplishment. I liked our demeanor. We withstood some of their blows and kept fighting. I told the team it something to be proud of, but we have a tough game on Friday, so it’s just on to the next one.”
(On the stretch in the fourth quarter were Aldridge was on the bench): “I thought Dorell Wright coming off the bench really made a difference. They made a run and we had a lead and they tied it up. He came in and I thought he made a lot of big plays. He was making some shots and he had a block and got some rebounds. Mo Williams, during that stretch as well. We need our bench to play well and it doesn’t always mean scoring. I thought our bench played well in Game one, but didn’t necessarily score, but it was good to get some points off the bench, but we’ll take them wherever we can.
(On having seen Aldridge play this well before): “No. I’ve seen him have a fantastic season. There’s no question but these two games here is as well as I’ve seen him play. He is very determined, he’s focused, and he’s leading the team, not only with his play, but also with the way he’s handling himself in the timeouts and in the locker room. This is really the best I’ve ever seen him play.”
(On Dwight Howard getting off to a good start): “He got off to such a good start. We wanted to play him straight up and I thought we did a better job as the game went on in mixing up our coverages. I thought Robin (Lopez) and L.A. (LaMarcus Aldridge) played good defense and the rest of the team really paid attention to him. The fact he had twenty five in the first half and finished with thirty two…we wanted to give him a lot more attention in the second half.”
(On what have the Trail Blazers done to take Harden out of his game): “I think Nick (Batum) and Wes (Matthews) give a lot of effort every defensive possession. James is one of the best scorers in the league and he’s going to have his opportunities and I takes focusing as he still going to get his shots. We’ve done a good job guarding without fouling and one thing about playoff basketball is that everybody has the every possession mentality. We didn’t fall asleep on him and I don’t think he got a lot of easy looks and every great player in this league, you just want to make them work and I think Nick and Wes in particular really have made him work.”